Change comes slowly to Annapolis. But it comes for all of us, whether we like it or not, and Annapolis is on the cusp of one of its biggest changes in decades.

On Thursday, deliberations begin on an $88 million plan to save the historic heart of Maryland’s small-town capital from flooding made worse by climate change. It would raise the main public waterfront at City Dock, elevating it by 8 feet and remaking it as a public park with a welcome center for boaters.

The largest public works project in city history, this transformation also has the potential to spur private redevelopment downtown and improve perpetually strapped city finances with new tax revenue. Already, plans for a hotel right on the new green are waiting in the wings.

To begin construction early next year, though, Mayor Gavin Buckley’s administration has to win approvals from the City Council, the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission. Work sessions on Thursday are intended to offer an outline, with city officials fielding questions from the three panels.

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But all three eventually will take comments from the public, evaluate the details, and change or accept what they don’t like before, finally voting.

Next month, the city plans to launch a $75,000 public awareness campaign about what disruptions to expect over the next three years. It will kick off with a rally at the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel (full disclosure, my wife works there) and offer an overview of the plan, the various stages of construction, plus an estimated timeline.

“We’re calling it a pardon-our-dust campaign,” said Mitchelle Stephenson, a city spokesperson.

Undoubtedly, though, it will include the message of all public works projects — we’re making a better city. City officials said there’s no political element, but it is taking place just as the public’s attention finally turns to this massive endeavor.

Here are five questions likely to be part of the approval process ahead.

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Does it work?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that Annapolis will see 115 high tide floods a year by 2050, up from just nine in 2021, because of human-driven global warming. Melting ice sheets, expanding seawater and swelling rain storms are all contributing to the danger.

Attention has focused so far on the Dock Street side of Ego Alley, a basin named for its parade of expensive powerboats. The plan calls for a tiered mitigation system, starting with green space to absorb and block floodwaters, concrete and glass seawalls to stop smaller floods and then flip-up panels to protect from anything like the 8-foot storm surge that flooded Annapolis’ waterfront 20 years ago during Tropical Storm Isabel.

Next door, the Navy is spending $37 million to repair and raise the Naval Academy seawall along Farragut Field and Santee Basin. It is the first of several projects planned to prevent flood damage.

On the Compromise Street side of Ego Alley, though, details are less clear. It is regularly closed by flooding — shutting off access across the Spa Creek Bridge. A separate $12 million plan to install pumps is in the long-term city construction plan, but the actual cost of flood protection is now estimated to be almost $30 million and is short of funds.

“Initially when the concept of this project came up … I thought, well, we’re finally going to address flooding,” said Alderwoman Elly Tierney, a former construction company executive who represents downtown on the City Council. “I’m very concerned about the flooding mechanisms or the lack thereof shown in the design. We have lost focus on that.”

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Money will be central to deciding how well the plan works. Tens of millions in county, state and federal funds are already approved, but the plan relies on $30 million from a competitive FEMA climate grant process.

Then there is future funding of maintenance and repairs for a waterfront structure unlike anything else in Maryland.

Is it right for Burtis House?

While the preservation of Colonial and Federalist buildings in the Historic District is a key focus, one small house is likely to loom large in this debate.

Located at the end of Prince George Street, the 19th-century home of Capt. William Henry Burtis is the last vestige of a working waterfront in Annapolis. Dozens of oyster packing houses once dotted the shoreline now occupied by the Naval Academy in a part of town known as Hell Point.

Historic Annapolis, created to protect and interpret historic buildings in the city, originally sought to win stewardship of Burtis House from the state. The goal was to tell a story often forgotten, of a small town that turned to making a living from the water after Colonial times ended.

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Instead, Buckley convinced the state to turn it over to the city. Burtis House would be almost enveloped in a new maritime welcome center under the City Dock plan, largely hidden from view at the new park.

“When I first saw this, the first question was ‘Where is Burtis House?’ ” said Rachel Robinson, vice president of preservation for Historic Annapolis. “This should be more than an addition.”

Is the welcome center too big?

The size of the planned 3,900-square-foot, three-story welcome center surprised some when it was unveiled in September. Although one story is below ground, the peak of the twin-gabled roof will rise 32 feet above the ground, which will be elevated by 8 feet.

In modern memory, this is a place of low-lying, small commercial buildings. Few think about the ferry landing, above-ground fuel tanks or squalid homes of the early 20th century.

But changing from what is there now will be central to the discussion.

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The phrase “viewshed” is likely to come up, particularly how the welcome center will affect what you can see from Main Street.

“If you’re on Main Street, you’ll be able to see the water, but if you’re at Market House you’ll have a more limited view,” Eileen Fogarty, chair of the action committee, told the Maritime Advisory board in June. “The views will all be from the park at the end.”

Will it have water access?

The plan does not address questions of public water access.

For a city famous for being on the water, Annapolis has limited public access spots and nothing other than water taxi and cruise boat landings downtown. The original vision included a place to launch kayaks and paddleboards, and the presentation of the plan includes a map of ferry links that don’t currently exist.

Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay office, has said the welcome center design is not very welcoming to the bay. Her agency wants to use Burtis House as a headquarters for the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area, a network of cultural and recreational sites.

Although the plan imagines room for the park service in the combined welcome center and Burtis House, it will also house the Harbor Master’s Office, public bathrooms, showers and other amenities for boaters, a food stall and a meeting space.

The Maritime Welcome Center, a key feature of the $88 million remaking of City Dock in Annapolis, shows a twin-gabled, wood-sided building right on the harbor.
The Maritime Welcome Center, a key feature of the $88 million remaking of City Dock in Annapolis, shows a twin-gabled, wood-sided building right on the harbor. (Courtesy of BCT Design Group)

Fogarty has said small boat launches are Buckley’s vision, and likely to be worked out over the next year. But others already have questioned the safety of mixing people on kayaks and paddleboards boats with large sailboats and powerboats in the busiest part of the Annapolis Harbor.

“You get to launching paddleboards out of the Burtis Basin and they’re going to get hit by somebody,” Maritime Advisory Board Chair Tarrant H. Lomax said during a June meeting.

Does the public support it?

It might be hard for the council to embrace this plan if there is widespread public opposition. The City Dock Action Committee was created several years ago to crowdsource the basic ideas, but there are always people who simply don’t follow along.

“Isn’t that crazy?” said Tierney, the Ward 1 alderwoman. “I mean, I always use this analogy: The spaceship has just landed and like where the hell have you been? It’s like, where the hell have you been? And this is a classic case of that.”

The campaign is intended to change that. Stephenson, the city spokesperson, said the Annapolis PR firm Contrast & Co. will provide a design motif to be used on signs, social media posts, bus wraps and billboards as well as messaging strategies.

It’s the same plan the city used during the rebuilding of the Noah Hillman Parking Garage, she said.

Public approval also will come from the planning and preservation commissions, which are volunteer panels.

Buckley recently shook up the preservation body by appointing Kimberly Golder, a retired federal parole officer and member of the city Democratic Central Committee, to replace chair Tim Leahy.

The mayor said the move was to add some diversity — Golder is Black while Leahy is white — and not influence the approval of the City Dock plan.

“Black history is under attack,” he said. “I wanted some diversity.”

There will be other questions, to be sure. And with something this big, you can bet there will be surprises.

But after years of planning, the hard part starts Thursday.

To follow Thursday’s discussion of the City Dock plan, visit the city’s YouTube channel.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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